Leroy (The River House, 2005, etc.), who specializes in delineating the lives of unhappy, not entirely likable British women, describes a young single mother whose child-rearing problems defy mere psychology.
Thanks to an affair with a married man several years earlier, narrator Grace is now raising preschooler Sylvie on her own. A beautiful child, Sylvie has a number of quirks. She has always called Grace by her first name. She is intensely afraid of water. Lately she has been upsetting her best friend Lennie by saying the little girl isn’t the real Lennie. She sleeps with a photograph of an Irish coastal town she claims is her real home. Her obstinacy and fears increase, causing uncontrollable tantrums and moments of rage. Soon her preschool expels Sylvie. Lennie’s mother Karen, Grace’s only friend, suggests that Sylvie needs a therapist. Instead Grace seeks out Adam Winters, an academic researcher of the paranormal. Until Adam’s arrival, the novel is an ambitiously queasy character study of Grace: protective of her child but also defensive, still obsessed with her ex-lover and envious of Karen’s more comfortable, settled life. Adam introduces parapsychology as an improved alternative to bland mainstream solutions. Grace’s early distrust of Adam quickly gives way, in part because she finds him attractive but also because she is moved when he describes his older brother’s death while they were stealing a car together as teens and his brother’s ghostly return. The possibility that telling such a story to a client may be inappropriate does not enter into this novel’s Gothic worldview any more than the questionable ethics of Adam and Grace’s growing romantic involvement. Grace, Sylvie and Adam head to the Irish village depicted in Sylvie’s photo and ferret out her former life. Seven years ago, nine-year-old Jessica (now Sylvie) and her mother were murdered. The murderer is still at large, though not for long.
Leroy’s delicate psychological insight falls to pieces under the weight of solving a preposterous murder mystery.